Wednesday evening, after work, I took a taxi to 198 Railton Road, home to 198 Contemporary Arts and Learning. A few days earlier I had received an invitation to the preview of its new exhibition of photographs by Eva Sajovic, the Slovenian artist I have blogged about previously.
To call 198 a gallery is to do it a disservice. Rather, it describes itself in the following way:
“198 is a pre-eminent cultural space in Brixton, which explores the rich diversity of artistic practices informed by globalisation and emerging cultural identities.”
Sajovic’s exhibition, focused as it is on the experiences of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers in the United Kingdom, Italy and Slovenia, could not find a more appropriate home. The minimalist, white-washed lines of the 198 are the perfect contrast with Sajovic’s vibrant pictures that capture the raw and sometimes confused emotions that arise at the intersection of diverse migratory cultures and the settled community. Perhaps most humbling is the sheer force of will required by Gypsies, Roma and Travellers to maintain their traditions and social structures in the face of overwhelming hostility, mistrust and misrepresentation. As Sajovic’s pictures, and their accompanying stories remind us, the persecution of difference is as great today as ever it was – the UK, Italy and Slovenia representative of European societies where society appears to deem it acceptable to discriminate against travelling communities in a way that it would not contemplate with those from other minorities.
For me, talking to two Travellers living in Southwark, the greatest irony is that the value that drives them to maintain their traditions above any other is the same as that of their fiercest conservative critics: family. It is the belief in inter-generational support, of the transmission of knowledge and tradition from one generation to another, that creates the tremendous familial bonds in travelling communities. How sad it is that as the settled community laments the loss of that ideal, the communities that are the object of so much of its hatred earn that ire as a consequence of living out that same ideal. Sajovic spoke movingly of the warmth and generosity with which she was received upon gaining the trust of the communities she worked with. For me it all gives Matthew 7 a very modern context:
“Do not judge others, and you will not be judged. For you will be treated as you treat others. The standard you use in judging is the standard by which you will be judged. And why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own? How can you think of saying to your friend, ‘Let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,’ when you can’t see past the log in your own eye? Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye.”
Matthew 7, 1-5, New Living Translation
An exhibition of photographers of travelling communities may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking how to spend a couple of hours of an evening. However, this initiative represents another small but very important step in helping to foster understanding between settled and travelling traditions that are steeped in a mutual suspicion that is centuries-old. Be adventurous and give it a go – and see something special from an exciting new talent.
And enjoy Brixton and the 198.